Onward march, New England


The Oval was the emotional destination of a journey started in the late 1990s by a cricketing nation to change its identity from England to New England, writes N.U. ABILASH.

THANKS to a mixture of poor light conditions at The Oval and some new age cricket bureaucracy, England's moment of winning back the Ashes 16 summers after they lost it in 1989 was, quite subversively in the light of the high-voltage series that preceded it, stripped of all action other than a farcical walk from the pavilion to the middle by Billy Bowden and Rudy Koertzen to remove the bails.

With due respect to the two officials, the sight may not have been inspiring enough for the commentary team on air to freeze in words one of the most significant moments of English sport. Whether it be The Oval 1953, when Len Hutton's side won back the Ashes after 19 years, Wembley `66 or Sydney 2003, when football and rugby won their World Cups, it has always been a peculiar English sporting tradition to remember the epic whole through the small window of the last moment of action as it was described on air. The Oval 2005, pertinently, might not have an immortal line such as Kenneth Wolstenholme's "They think it is all over" when Geoff Hurst scored in the last minute against West Germany, or Brian Johnston's "Is it the Ashes? Yes, it is the Ashes, they are coming home" when Denis Compton hit the winning runs, or Ian Robertson's "He drops for World Cup glory. It's up, it's over. He's done it" when Jonny Wilkinson's drop kick found its mark.

But, then, something different from other historic triumphs was bound to happen at The Oval on September 12, 2005. It was, after all, the emotional destination of a journey started in the late 1990s by a cricketing nation to change its identity from England to New England, or even United Kingdom if one were to redraw the Scottish border a few miles down south to where Steve Harmison's Tyneside home is (Wales is properly represented by reverse swing ace Simon Jones, and Marcus Trescothick, of Cornish descent, has been a key player for the last five years). The journey has been all about forging an inclusive identity in the dressing room, of achieving individual and collective excellence and of having supreme confidence in each other. There is, in the new scheme of things, no room for the efficient manner in which the standardised mediocrity of the county circuit was replicated on the international stage during the dismal 1990s. That was the time when a national selector, a former England captain, struck down the selection of a leading batsman saying, "What else does he bring to the tour party other than runs?" That was also when a former England one-day cricketer complained about his Australian county coach: "The problem with him is that he wants all of us to be international cricketers."

How succinctly and beautifully did captain Michael Vaughan convey the spirit of New England! During the open-top bus journey, staged the day after the Ashes win, the skipper waved a St. George flag on which was emblazoned, `Gary Pratt OBE.' Pratt's direct hit as twelfth man to run out Ricky Ponting in Trent Bridge was a small but central piece of contribution towards the regaining of the Ashes; it upset the Australian captain's composure and just as in the famous Bodyline series of 1932-33 created the scenario of a losing Australian skipper going ballistic at the tactics of a winning English team which was in keeping with the rules of the game but in perceived violation of the spirit. Pratt was present on the bus with the rest of the heroes in the victory parade. In keeping with the inclusive tone, the heroines — England's women cricketers who won their Ashes against the Australian women a few days ago — followed in another bus.

The Ashes series — whether it was the frenetic pace at which it was played, the relentless trading of punches and counter punches, or the microscopic margins of results — might certainly have been an epic that did justice to the trophy at stake, the 123-year-old Ashes Urn. But, unlike in traditional epics, where some people are more equal than the others, at the end of this modern one there were thirteen equal heroes in the England dressing room — eleven who played the Test match plus the injured Simon Jones and Gary Pratt — toasting the master, coach Duncan Fletcher, to whom they gave their everything over two months of action without a trace of a betrayal. With the influence of the Ashes series on English society and tastes bordering on the impossible, perhaps number 13 might even end up connoting luck in English society.

For an English definition of sporting impossibility, consider these developments: an internet monitoring service revealed recently that searches in England for Andrew Flintoff have been 78 per cent higher than those for Wayne Rooney; cricket displaced England's most popular sport in the leads of the national media; Cricket merchandise sold more, even when the Premiership started its new season in mid-August. A gargantuan feat considering that cricket is battling not just international football but also huge global brands such as Manchester United.

But, the ace that cricket has up its sleeve, which rugby did not, is continuity. The stability, unity and togetherness of the England team, during and after the historic achievement, looks positively threatening if one were a Pakistani or Indian supporter. Pakistan first hosts the marauding team in October. The trip to India is in March 2006. It looks quite possible that most of the Ashes wining side would be together — "the one for all, all for one work ethic," as the poshest man in the dressing room, opening batsman Andrew Strauss, puts it — during the next round of the Ashes battle in Australia in 2006-07.

Rugby's World Cup winning side of 2003 never played together again. Martin Johnson retired after leading his nation to glory, Jonny Wilkinson was plagued by injuries and coach Clive Woodward is now employed as director of football of Southampton Football Club, relegated from the Premiership last season.

In the event of live cricket blanked out of terrestrial television in the next four years for the first time ever as a result of a controversial deal signed by the ECB with a pay-per-view channel, Vaughan and his men would know that the future of cricket in the country is inextricably attached to their performance. "We will aim for the World Cup in 2007 in addition to defending the Ashes in Australia," said Vaughan, the day after the Ashes glory.

Vaughan prefers to keep The Oval 2005 not as a climax with a closure but as a denouement that blends seamlessly with the beginning of the next campaign. The emotional glory of Ashes 2005 will be complete only if extended to the shorter version of the game as well, a code in which British Asians — who represent the inclusive spirit of New England — such as Vikram Solanki, Kabir Ali, Owais Shah, the most prolific county batsman of this summer and Essex batsman Ravi Bopara are expected to play important roles by the time of World Cup 2007, the logical destination of the journey started in the late 1990s.

Duncan Fletcher will vociferously disagree that the contribution of British Asians towards national success is being spoken of in future tense. As Vaughan is gracious to admit in his autobiography A Year in the Sun, former skipper Nasser Hussain was the co-founder of `New England' along with Fletcher. Be it breaking down the hierarchy of the dressing room by making newcomers part of the decision-making process, getting the best out of highly sensitive — `difficult' in the terminology of Old England — individuals by mind-blowing man management techniques, or allowing the individuality of players of flair to develop and then working out plans which enhance the talents rather than throttling it, Hussain and Fletcher initiated a process of change which was passed on to Vaughan.

This process has ensured minimalistic tampering with Trescothick's flamboyant horizontal bat shots square of the wicket, Harmison's natural tearaway tendencies and most things connected with Flintoff and Pietersen. In Vaughan's England, as in Hussain's, there would be more of Flintoffs, Pietersens, Harmisons and Ian Bells than Devon Malcolms, Phil Tuffnells and Dominic Corks.

Youth, vibrancy, creativity, planning, implementation, great back-up structures (measures such as setting up of the National Academy and the awarding of central contracts), and "unity in the face of adversity," as Australian opener Justin Langer summed up England's Ashes success in his column for BBC Online, are reasons why New England can go on to greater things in cricket. The not-so glamorous attribute of success — willingness to slog it out — has not been pushed to the background, though. The personification of toil in the team, Ashley Giles, along with his Warwickshire mate Ian Bell, who had a torrid time coming to terms with the magic of Shane Warne, were the first players to take the Ashes replica to the respective counties, a move by the ECB to get the youth and children inspired by the game and its heroes.

At a time when Wayne Rooney has been busy abusing captain David Beckham, or being contemptuous of the referee, English youngsters will be inspired more by the spirit displayed by their cricketing hero in the series.

When Harmison dismissed Australian last man Michael Kasprowicz in the last over of the Edgbaston Test to give England a two-run victory after Kasprowicz, in company of the heroic Bret Lee, put on a 59-run last wicket stand, Flintoff gave a bear hug to a disconsolate Lee, which will be one of cricket's beautiful images forever. Ignoring the butter fingers of showboy Kevin Pietersen, Team England hardly put a foot wrong during Ashes 2005.